Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man II

Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man II, 1960, bronze, 188.5 × 27.9 × 110.7 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington)


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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:09] We’re in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and we’re on one of the high bridges that spans the large atrium, and right in the middle, as if walking across, is Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture, “Walking Man II” from 1960.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:19] This figure is striding forward so intentionally. The upper part of his body leans forward, and I wonder where he’s going.

Dr. Zucker: [0:28] Giacometti was a Swiss artist who worked in France before the Second World War. Much of his work is associated with Surrealism and was often horizontal and was interested in the unconscious.

Dr. Harris: [0:38] The figure is incredibly thin and elongated, almost seems to be disappearing before our eyes. It’s hard not to think about the horrors of the war when one looks at this, although this is clearly decades later.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] During and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Giacometti made very small figures that almost seemed as if they had been dissected, as if the flesh had somehow been taken off them. They were so thin.

[1:03] When you see those in person, you want to get very close to them because they seem to vanish before our eyes, but even here, decades later, in this much larger figure, what we might expect to feel monumental, we still have a human body that seems distant, that we still need to approach it to be able to see it, but no matter how close we get to it, it’s not available to us.

Dr. Harris: [1:22] When you think about the tradition of bronze sculpture, we think about heroic ancient Greek athletes or Roman emperors or pagan gods or goddesses, but this is just “Walking Man.”

Dr. Zucker: [1:36] It’s a sculpture that has been stripped of allegory, stripped of meaning. This is central to postwar intellectual thought, which we often associate with Existentialism. In fact, the French writer and philosopher, Sartre, wrote the forward to an early postwar exhibition of this artist.

[1:55] Existentialism is associated with the idea that the spiritual does not construct meaning in the universe, but that man is alone, isolated and responsible for meaning. In a sense, the horrors of the First and the Second World War had culminated in a philosophical idea that man was abandoned, that man existed alone.

Dr. Harris: [2:10] It makes sense that there is no cultural meaning attached to him. We have no attributes to indicate who he is or what he is. He is simply a human figure who exists, in a way, alone in the universe, constructing meaning for himself.

Dr. Zucker: [2:25] Through his intention, through his movement, through his walking.

Dr. Harris: [2:35] Here, that walking seems so intentional but also very unmoored to me, which is ironic because his feet are so moored in that bronze that forms the earth that he’s walking on. Normally, we think about bronze sculptures on pedestals. We think about them moored in meaning.

[2:47] For example, I think about Rodin and “The Burghers of Calais.” Even though those figures are meant to be eye level or ground level, those are still heroic figures. Figures who gave their lives for a cause. Here, all of that heroism seems gone. Yet, there is still in his isolation, in his intentionality, something beautiful and noble about him.

Dr. Zucker: [3:11] “Walking Man” seems to ask us to focus, not only on the attenuated body, not only on the way that the body dissipates, but on its rough surface, on its tactility.

Dr. Harris: [3:27] If we think about bronze sculptures, there is a long tradition of interest in human anatomy that is completely gone here. We have a surface that feels very much like the clay that this bronze sculpture was made from.

Dr. Zucker: [3:35] Here, the figure seems stripped of any interior space. This is literally a stick figure. He is absolutely static and rooted, even as he’s a symbol of a figure moving through space.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man II," in Smarthistory, April 25, 2018, accessed April 16, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/giacometti-walking/.